The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Pt. 3: Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret February 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 10:12 am

Here is part 3 of my paper on Charles Bukowski, the american poet.  Read part 1 by clicking here and part 2 by clicking here!

Part 3

When a person writes poetry or auto-biography, there is always a certain concealment at work; it is no different with Bukowski.  That concealment is a function of its proximity to the hiddenness of the world.  So Bukowski’s work is concealed to the extent that he re-presents the hidden population of his beloved and impoverished Los Angeles.  A historian or a philosopher is trying to get close to the truth by the language they use.  A poet is trying to get close to the truth by setting up a world of language in which discovering truth becomes a new possibility.  When a writer weaves images, whether fictional, historical, or somewhere in between, there is always, if it is good writing, a sense of play with language.  This play is an analogy somewhat akin to hide and go seek.  the true meaning of the poem or the self disclosing act of writing is to be found both within the subject matter of the work as well as within the existence of writing as riddle.  the subject matter that the poem purports to deal with can be found within the words, rhythm, and syntax.  the fact of its being, its breathing, can be found as the reader steps back from what she is doing to recognize the nature of the poetic act, in writing and in reading.  the work of the poet, in this case Bukowski, is to say one thing and mean another, and this gives us pleasure.  and it is not pleasure from within the poem, but a pleasure that comes when the reader’s conception of the world as paradox, and as misery and joy, is reflected back to her through the double speak of the poet.

This is especially felt in poets like Bukowski who writes much like one imagines he would speak in person.  Because of this, the reader reads Bukowski much as if he were simply retelling a story he heard himself five minutes ago on the street from a hobo friend.  Because of the pure narrative force of tactile encounter that Bukowski’s writing effects with the suffering world, the reader is obliged to empathize with many shocking and offensive things that, were it not for the nearness of tragicomic hope, would still seem distant, frightful, and disturbing.  For instance, after a sexual encounter with a complete stranger, he writes, “she walked out of the bedroom.  I let them go; they let me go.  everything is horrible really, and i add to it.  they will never let us sleep until we are dead and then they will think up another trick.” (Notes, pg. 104)  This would be only a tragic scene were it not for the humor, the dark laughter, that comes twisting at the end, “then they will think up another trick.”  It doesn’t matter who “they” are, nor does it matter that we understand just what Bukowski believed about the after-life.  What matters is that we, the readers, relate to that strange human mixture of joy and despair, or joy quickly followed by despair.  We are dogged by this intense experience of meaning and then confronted with the finite nature of life, and of finite experiences within that finite life.  There is the feeling that we are being tricked.  But if we have common sense, and Bukowski has a great deal of this, then we know that such a feeling is melodramatic and a bit embarassing.  It is too stark, too over played to really believe that we have been tricked into life, that all of life is a trick, though everyone entertains these thoughts.  It is exactly at this point that the double-speak I mentioned earlier is activated and we are saved from this melodrama by humor.  Even small salvations like this are enough to awaken hope.

We agree with Bukowski’s poetic estimation of life, i am convinced, because he both means and does not mean what he says.  When he speaks without hope, or with derision, about things like love.  there is a trick at work.  The thing that is being derided is our condition, our continual lot, woven as it is between our choice and our addictions.  but beneath this, perhaps within the nature of poetry’s language itself, is a recollection of an unimaginable secret: the longing for love that cannot be satisfied by anything else but love.  For “then they will think up another trick” can also be understood as what to Bukowski would be the greatest joke of all: that there might be some kind of redemption for people like him.  it is a very picky, present longing, and, ironically, Bukowski champions this by describing all the ways in which he, and those he lives life with, trash love, kill it, leave it for dead by the side of the road.  but love does not die, and, by continuing to write, and perhaps even continuing to live, Bukowski narrates into being the stubborn inconsolable secret of love’s longing in the world, of hope that, though it is both tragic and comic, is real hope nonetheless.


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